I love bass instruments, particularly the electric bass guitar. Together with the drums, it lays the very foundation and comprises the rhythm section of most musical genres particularly jazz and rock. Without it, your favorite music just won’t sound the same.
The bass guitar fell unto my lap by default in 1963 when my I left my first band (The LodeStars) and formed The Black Knights. There were three guitarists and a drummer and of course no one wanted to be the bassist. To avoid starting a band with a conflict, I volunteered to be the one. I borrowed a friend’s bass and quickly learned the dynamics. Lo and behold, I fell in love with the instrument.
The bass is a rhythm section instrument. While the percussionist beats the skins to keep rhythm, the bassist does so by plucking the long rigid fat strings. It takes maturity not to overdo or overplay the notes. As a bassist, your job is to keep the beat in a melodic manner while providing a foundation, not to be the center of attraction. You can solo once in a while but don’t make it too long. Just enough to catch their attention and offer a refreshing break from the lead instruments. If you make it too long, half of the audience would find an excuse to go to the wash room or maybe fill up at the bar.
I still prefer the traditional 4 string bass. For the function I employ the instrument, a 5 string bass is unnecessary and a 6 string bass is superfluous. Then again, I respect other bassists’ need for artistic expansion/expression and acknowledge individual styles and preferences.
Below are a few bassists I’ve come to admire through the ages. Some of them were early influences on me as a kid starting to embrace the musician in my soul. Some are new ones that make me take notice.
George “Pops” Foster: Did you ever wonder who first transformed the classical bass cello (that is played with a bow) into a “plucked” instrument and became an essential main jazz element which then helped shape the sound of American pop music? Neither do I, but I have a feeling George “Pops” Foster was one of them if not actually the “one”. I like to think that if it weren’t for Pops Foster, American popular music wouldn’t have evolved into the form we know it today.
Willie Dixon: Other than being a great blues singer who penned classics such as Little Red Rooster, Back Door Man and Spoonful, Willie was an excellent bassist who spanned many genres. He played bass for the likes of Chuck Berry and other early blues, jazz and rock greats. His songs had been covered by many artists to this day.
Charles Mingus: To me, the name Mingus will always be synonymous with jazz bass. The man penned many jazz classics including his signature Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. In 1979, Joni Mitchell dedicated a whole album to him.
Monk Montgomery: He is perhaps the first electric bassist of significance to jazz who introduced the Fender Precision Bass to the genre in 1951. He played with many notable artists before going solo including his younger brother Wes, Cal Tjader, Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo. He was one of the first who used the electric bass as a lead instrument.
Carol Kaye: If you listened to pop music in the decade of the 60s, you have heard Carol’s bass artistry. Her résumé is as eclectic as it can get from Motown to the Beach Boys. She used a pick to make those bass notes sing in a solid rhythm that only she could provide. The bass line to the Beach Boys’ Good Vibration (which people mistakenly accredited to Brian Wilson) is just stunning. If I have an all time favorite bassist, it would be Carol.
Jet Harris: As bassist of the legendary British instrumental rock band The Shadows, Jet Harris’ bass playing demanded to be heard. Never obtrusive, he provided those beautiful bass lines on their early tracks. His signature tunes were Jet Black and Nivram.
Bob Bogle: He was lead guitarist of the legendary Ventures until he traded axes with bassist Nokie Edwards. His was one of my earliest inspirations on the electric bass. His work on the 1962 Ventures album In Space encouraged me to switch from lead guitar to bass.
Bill Black: Bill was the bassist for the Scotty Moore Trio who backed Elvis in most of his early hits. He later fronted the Bill Black Combo.
Brian Wilson: The bass was Brian’s instrument of choice when performing with the Beach Boys during their early days. He thumbed the strings as most singing bassists in the early 60s did and had a unique configuration of bass harmonics that was evident in many Beach Boys tunes.
Paul McCartney: It’s hard not to include Sir Paul in any list of rock bassists. If you were part of the Beatles, your work will forever be influential.
James Jamerson: As the uncredited bassist to most of Motown hits in the 60s and early 70s, James Jamerson is one of the most influential bass players in modern music history. The list of folks he played with includes Jr Walker and the All Stars, the Temptations, Four Tops, Miracles, Gladys Knight, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes etc. In 2000, he was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame being the first-ever “sideman” to be so honored.
Chris Hillman: Chris was a reluctant bass player and it showed. While not one of the flashiest there is, he provided the necessary bottom notes to the Byrds’ often lyrically esoteric tunes.
Jack Casady: When I first heard the opening bass line to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I was mesmerized. I had to know the name of the bass player. Jack’s work with the Airplane was just that, simply mesmerizing.
Roger Waters: Roger co-founded Pink Floyd and wrote most of their cosmic themed interstellar compositions. He also wrote most of the tunes on their epic opus The Wall. He could hypnotize you with a single note, and that’s not easy to do.
John McVie: As a founding member of Fleetwood Mac, John McVie always impressed me with his solid blues style. His rhythm section synergy with drummer and Mac co-founder Mick Fleetwood is one of the best in the business.
Jack Bruce: I think that given the chance, Jack Bruce can play more notes per second than fellow Cream mate and lead guitarist Eric Clapton. And he can do it while singing lead. That is saying plenty.
Jim Fielder: Jim Fielder is the only electric bassist I know of who uses all ten fingers of his hands. Watching him play bass is artistry in itself. He is well known as the versatile bassist of the legendary Blood Sweat and Tears during its Al Kooper era.
Timothy Schmit: He wowed me with his singing and bass playing with Poco, one of the most underrated bands in history. He continues to produce records for other artists to this day. He is also the bass player for the Eagles whom you may have heard of.
Chris Squire: Chris has one of the most complicated bass runs in rock. As part of the progressive rock band Yes, his bass was a big factor in amalgamating their uniquely esoteric and technically elaborate sound.
Lee Sklar: Mellow folk rock with the suspended rhythms and augmented chords are sometimes the most difficult for a bassist to provide a foundation to. But not for Leland Sklar. He is at home in any kind of genre. Just ask James Taylor, Carol King, Diana Ross, Sammy Hagar, assorted Byrds and Buffalo Springfield soloists, Air Supply, America, Toto, Randy Newman, Clint Black, Jackson Browne, Van Dyke Parks, Reba McEntire, Donovan, David Sanborn, Carly Simon etc etc and yes even Barbi Benton. Impressed? You should be. Lee Sklar is the Gandalf of pop bassists in this lifetime.
Sting: Anyone who can sing lead and at the same time do a reggae bass line gets my admiration. His bass work with Police was an eclectic mix of punk, reggae and “new wave” approach to rock music.
Stanley Clarke: Best known for his work with legendary jazz band Return to Forever and then later with his own band, Stanley is probably the best revered and imitated jazz bassist alive. He is among the pioneers of the percussive style on the electric bass and none could be better in that technique to this day.
Jaco Pastorius: Jaco was one of the most gifted modern electric bassists. His style although bordering on the esoteric was never ostentatious. His percussive attack on the strings became well imitated but never duplicated. He is one of the most admired and revered bassists in modern music.
Robbie Shakespeare: Robbie Shakespeare’s bass lines defy rhythm and definition. Together with drummer Sly Dunbar, they comprise the celebrated Jamaican rhythm section called Sly and Robbie in the music business. They are one of reggae’s most prolific and long lasting production teams.
Phil Chen: Phil Chen’s Curriculum Vitae is a virtual who’s who of rock. It includes the Doors, Brian May, Eddie Van Halen, Joan Armatrading, Jeff Beck, Ray Charles, Pete Townsend, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Rod Stewart etc. He was also the bassist for the short lived but much revered Butts Band with Robbie Krieger and John Densmore of the Doors.
Edgar Meyer: Whether jamming on progressive bluegrass with the likes of Bela Fleck or classical music with a symphony orchestra or just having a fun time with Yo-yo Ma, Edgar Meyer does not find it difficult to feel at home.
Suzi Quatro: This Detroit native was not only one of the first women who played the electric bass in a rock band, she also influenced and inspired many young female musicians. You may also know her as Leather Tuscadero in the long running TV series Happy Days.
Jean Millington: Before the Runaways, there was Fanny. This pioneering “girl rock band” could play their instruments as well as any of their male contemporaries of the 70s. Jean was the bassist for Fanny.
Tina Weymouth: Tina was asked to learn to play the bass so that her boyfriend’s band the Talking Heads can have a bass player in 1974. She listened to a few Suzi Quatro albums and mixed in her love of reggae, and a very unique bassist was born. She also worked with Tom Tom Club, an offshoot of Talking Heads.
Michael Manring: Although often tagged as a New Age musician, Michael Manring is much more than that and defies categorization. His compositions are well structured yet his improvisational skills are among the best.
Esperanza Spalding: Esperanza is an extremely versatile and talented bassist who sings like a nightingale. She is at home with the upright bass as well as the electric. She may be the veritable future of jazz. If you love jazz and the bass, it doesn’t get much better than Esperanza. She is my present favorite.
Nikki Monninger: Nikki is the bassist for Silversun Pickups, an alternative rock band from California. Using the guitar pick, some of her bass runs are rather tasty and crunchy. Together with drummer Christopher Guanlao, they have the best drum/bass synergy going on today.
There are a few more but the ones I mentioned above have displayed excellent bass artistry and craftsmanship. If you love the bass, you would do yourself a favor by listening to their music.
Again, I do not consider myself a master of the bass. What I share is the love of the instrument and the good fortune to embrace it for five decades.
I leave you with a quote from Suzi Quatro: "Guitar is for the head, drums are for the chest, but bass gets you in the groin"
I can’t put it more eloquently than that.